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Last night, I watched the premiere episode of this series. As you can well imagine, when I heard this was coming, every skeptical nerve in my body fired at once. So I set my ReplayTV to record it.

So, last night's episode focused on three paranormal stories. I'll take them one by one.


Supposedly, there are these mysterious creatures ranging in size from a few centimeters to meters that have never been detected by scientific means except that they can be photographed. In fact, they are seemingly everywhere, but only show up on photographs, not to the naked eye. There is much photographic evidence for them, and the photographs and videos that have been subjected to examination are found not to have been tampered with.

My inner skeptic was practically foaming at the mouth by the time it got to where they can only be detected in photographs, but not by the naked eye. Luckily, the show did hire a photography expert who used massively expensive equipment that is only available to the CIA and FBI (and, apparently, cheesy pseudo-science shows on cable networks) to analyze the photographs and videos. Unsurprisingly, he announced unequivocally and with no room whatsoever for misinterpretation or argument that the "phenomenon" of "rods" is nothing more than an artifact of rapid movement and film. For instance, if a moth is flying fast, its image blurs. And because the wings are flapping, it produces that odd "rippled" edge that so-called "rods" are assumed to have. Or if you're filming a moving object and there is a light source in shot, the light source will blur as the camer moves past it.

It's hard to believe that otherwise smart people (one has to give them the benefit of the doubt) can fail to comprehend simple physics. So, score 1 for the show: they debunked a nonsensical myth. Inner skeptic: Smiling.

Ghost in the Lighthouse

Some old guy whose dream it was to live at a lighthouse and be the caretaker got his wish after retirement. The lighthouse was disabled so that it could not operate. A few years later, he died. Shortly thereafter, people (including his widow) began seeing a mysterious light in the lighthouse which would flicker and seemed random in when and for how long it would appear. There was no electricity to the lighthouse and simply no way the thing was operational. So, of course, his "ghost" was attributed. People reportedly saw him in the lighthouse.

Again, my inner skeptic was already hot on the trail of bunk. The show called in an expert--and, lo! it was not a "ghostbuster" or "psychic" who would "feel the vibrations of the deceased" and pronounce it "haunted." It was a guy who was familiar with optics and the properties of light. Inner skeptic: Surprised but very happy.

He and his team went into the lighthouse and within minutes, he had solved the so-called mysterious haunting. He put his coat over a window and the ghost-light went out! Lights from the harbor were entering a downstairs window and, by reflection and refraction, were being picked up by the huge lens above. The flickering and randomness were because conditions were not always perfect, nor were the lights across the harbor always on or visible.

I guess the people who "saw his ghost" feel pretty stupid now that they know it's complete crap, huh? (Not a chance; people hold onto their irrational beliefs long after they're proven to be irrational.)

Oh, one last note on this one: the first one of the investigative team into the lighthouse had to climb in through a window because the door was locked and they didn't have a key. He goes in and becomes freaked out because he thought he felt "a chill" and saw "a dark form" hovering over hear the spiral staircase. So he runs to the door and bursts out. Later, they can't get the lock open and realize that it is completely destroyed and there should have been no way he could have opened it. A lock expert pronounced that "no mere human could break a padlock like this." Again, my inner skeptic was going nuts.

They missed an obvious answer: Someone had tried to break into the lighthouse--probably teenagers hot on the trail of cheap, spooky thrill--and destroyed the lock, but it was not visible from the outside. The door wouldn't open not because it was locked, but because the lock was jammed. When the guy panicked and hit the door going about 80 mph on pure fight-or-flight adrenaline, he forced it open through sheer force, perhaps damaging it further. He didn't break it--someone with a crowbar or something like that did.

Rational. Not supernatural. Not paranormal. Sheesh. And if I can come up with it, so could a lot of other reasonable people. At least they debunked the ghost. Inner skeptic: Annoyed at the lock, but happy about the ghost-debunking.

Policeman's Past Life

An Indianapolis homicide detective believes that he is the reincarnation of 19th-century American artist James Carroll Beckwith. Um, right. Sure. Uh-huh. Yeah. To be sure.

So, this skeptical policeman is convinced by someone (I don't know or care who) to go to a hypnotherapist for a past-life regression. To find out if he's had past lives. He had had no dreams, weird phobias or anything of the sort. It was just kind of a lark. (Or was it? See below....)

So imagine his surprise when he comes out of the hypnotic trance and discovers that he has "remembered" things under hypnosis! And it's on tape! He has a few more sessions and then goes into full "police investigator" mode. He takes the tapes and goes through them looking for verifiable facts. He finds 28 that he can use to find out if the person he remembers being actually did exist. The main points: He was a painter, his mother died of a blood clot, he hated portraits, he liked wine (???) and he remembered distinctly painting a portrait of a hunchback woman. He even was able to describe the painting to an artist who drew what he remembered and described.

So. He goes on a search and finds pretty much nothing. At all. Until one day he's in New Orleans and wanders into an art gallery. Just out of the blue. *wink wink* Lo and behold, on display is the painting of the hunchback woman from his hypnosis-aided memories! There are no reproductions in existence, says the curator, so he couldn't possibly have seen it anywhere but in the museum or if he painted it. (*snort*) So he finds out the painter was James Carroll Beckwith. Armed with a name, he goes in search of information on Beckwith, looking for the other 27 verifiable facts he "remembered" from his "regression." And he finds the man's diaries in the national archives or something. He borrows them, copies them, and studies them.

Of course, he found his facts. All 27, plus the painting, making the full 28. They even remarked on the obscurity of one or two of them, since they were only mentioned once in the diaries (9600 pages). Inner skeptic: Skeptical.

So the show called in a polygraph expert. Among the questions they asked him were "Did you know the identity of the painter prior to your regression?" His answer was "inconclusive" to that question, meaning there was some doubt as to whether his answer of "No, I did not" was entirely truthful. The first time. Then they told him that, you know, maybe they'd asked the question incorrectly or like that. So they gave him a second chance, several days later. And of course he came through with flying colors. Truthful responses on all the questions asked. So their conclusion was that this was PROOF POSITIVE<insert sound of stamp hitting paper here> that reincarnation is for real.

I thought I was going to have to tranquilize my inner skeptic.

First of all, you wanna tell me a veteran police officer doesn't know how to mess around with a lie detector test?

Secondly, not only has this particular cop authored several books, he now has a book out about his past life. Yeah, no motive there.

Thirdly, it's possible that he believes the truth of what he's saying. And the polygraph can only tell if you're lying consciously. If you believe what you're saying, it'll say you're truthful. To even imply that the polygraph is some magic device that can tell truth from fiction outside what the person taking the test knows/believes is to grossly overstate its usefulness.

Fourth, to categorically state that there is no way he could have seen the painting or found out all the information he found is ludicrous. Of course he could have. It makes a great story, and he's a published author with a new book to sell. Someone trained in research and boring details. To categorically state in this day of instant information gratification that he could not possibly have seen the painting or have known all the details of this man's life is to be hopelessly and criminally naive.

Fifth, let's go out on another limb that's still plausible: The hypnotist herself could have "planted" the memories. It happens all the time. So far, the lion's share of "recovered memory" cases have been shown to be false and the subject was influenced (purposefully or by accident) by the hypnotherapist asking leading questions. The same for daycare child molestation and so-called Satanic cults that are recalled only under hypnosis.

Finally, the mere fact that some of his "28 facts" were so obscure as to have only been mentioned once in the 9600 pages of diaries indicate to me that he purposefully went out of his way to memorize and then "remember" those facts during his "regression." They mentioned how his first hypnotism didn't go so well. He "resisted" and they "kept at it" until he finally "succumbed." Funny, that. Almost like he needed plausibility. "Gee, I didn't want to be put under, so I must be telling the truth! Right?"

Inner skeptic: The guy is about as real as a $3 bill. And reincarnation is about as plausible as a Canadian $14 bill.

Them's my 2 cents and my detailed review. In conclusion/summary: If the show continues like it did for this first episode, they'll lose me. The "conclusive proof" wouldn't stand up to a curious 6-year-old. At least, unlike most of the other shows of its kind on the air right now (if there are any still left), they make an effort at scientifically investigating the claims. But it's the SciFi channel. If they didn't have at least a little "woo-woo" factor, they think they'll lose viewership. Because, you know, people who like science fiction will believe anything.

Any show if this sort worth its salt would have James "The Amazing" Randi on staff. Or Michael Shermer. Or someone with a skeptical bone in their body.

Atheists Are People, Too  Antispam  


( 2 hisses — Hiss at me! )
Oct. 7th, 2004 10:08 pm (UTC)
I watched this too, out of random 'I'm bored, what's on' ness. It pretty much sucked hardcore-- the rods thing was completely unbelievable. I was mostly amused and pleased with the optics guy at the lighthouse. And the third story was so random and shit as to be... well, random and shit. Sigh.
Oct. 7th, 2004 11:07 pm (UTC)
Because, you know, people who like science fiction will believe anything.

Yeah, that does seem to be the common misconception even though it's generally the complete opposite. Smart enough to imagine anything, and therefore question everything while believing nothing. :)

( 2 hisses — Hiss at me! )

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